ANTHONY BERKELEY – Dead Mrs. Stratton. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1933. First published in the UK as Jumping Jenny, hardcover, 1933. Reprinted by The Hogarth Press, UK, softcover, 1984.

   In 1933 mystery writers were still playing around with the conventions of the puzzle aspect of the detective story, with authors having lots of fun playing games with the reader, pulling the wool over their eyes, and otherwise very much playing magician in a literary format. Dead Mrs. Stratton, the US title, is solidly in that tradition.

   Which makes it difficult for a reviewer (not a critic) to talk about a book such as this one, for fear of saying too much, giving too much away that the reader would far rather find out for his or her own. My way of compensating for this is by warning you that from this point on nothing I say will be exactly true. Or it may be true, but I won’t tell you whether it is or not. On the other hand, everything may be true.

   The protagonist of this tale is noted amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham, in the ninth of ten appearances. Dead is a woman whose mad and outrageous behavior is uniformly despised by all. Her husband, a mild-mannered man who may have loved her once but no longer and is said to love another, but he dare not bring up the subject of divorce, for fear of her reaction and perhaps other secrets about their friends and family that she may reveal.

   At a party hosted by her husband’s brother she also threatens suicide, and it is no surprise for the assembled guests to discover toward the end of the evening that she has done precisely that. Roger, a good friend of the host, is suspicious, and realizing that it was murder and the husband is the most obvious suspect, finds himself manipulating the evidence to insure the coroner’s verdict is that of suicide.

   Here is where the author steps in and makes sure we know more than Sheringham does, so it becomes extremely amusing to watch the latter eliminate the real killer and discover that he has inadvertently made himself the obvious suspect instead, should the police be intelligent enough to look beyond surface appearances. Which, as it turns out, they are, and they do.

   There is much heavy huddling around by Sheringham with the other guests at the party to get their stories to gibe with his, and much smile-provoking consternation on his part as well, when they don’t. This means that there isn’t a lot of action in this novel — practically none — but the plotting is extremely intricate and detailed. This is not a book that is designed for modern day readers, but outdated or not, I found that doing my best to stay abreast of Sheringham’s trials and tribulations was a very enjoyable task, and the ending was just a huge, huge bonus. (At is turns out, Sheringham never does know who the killer is.)